NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright and human rights activist who became the conscience of his nation died yesterday at the age of 75. Repeatedly jailed by the communist government, his example and his words inspired human rights activists across Eastern Europe and the world. He emerged as one of the architects of the Velvet Revolution and the unanimous choice of the new parliament as the first president of a free Czechoslovakia. Hope, he once wrote, is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.
Ariel Dorfman joins us now from his home in Durham, North Carolina. He's a professor of literature at Duke. His memoir where he writes about the influence of dissidents like Vaclav Havel is titled "Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile." And, Ariel, nice to have you back on the program.
ARIEL DORFMAN: It's great to be with you again, Neal, though I'm sorry it has to be for such an occasion.
CONAN: Me, too. But for all the obituaries I've seen, they list Vaclav Havel, writer and president. Do you think he would have been pleased to see those descriptors in that order?
DORFMAN: No. I think he would have preferred being called writer. He would have loved being called playwright and writer. But he probably would have thought himself as a moral beacon, a moral authority, which is he always put ethics at the center of politics, which is very different from what most politicians do. And I think he would have put himself - well, he would have probably liked me to say that he was a mischief-maker. He was mischievous personally, impish, you know, almost, shy but impish. But also, he thought that it was up to people like him to make trouble, and that when you make trouble in the world, the world seems superficially at peace with itself, complacent with itself, the world ends up being made turbulent. And I think that's what he did. But he did it in his work, and he did it in his political activism, as well, as human rights activist.
CONAN: In his speech, his first speech as president, January 1st, 1990, he said: Communism is a monstrous, ramshackle, stinking machine whose worst legacy is not economic failure, but a spoiled moral environment. We've become morally ill because we are used to saying one thing and thinking another. We have learned not to believe in anything, not to care about each other. Love, friendship, mercy, humility or forgiveness have lost their depths and dimension. They represent some sort of psychological curiosity, or they appear as long-lost wanderers from faraway times - not words we expect from most of our politicians.
DORFMAN: Well, you know what? What's wonderful about what you just read there is his eloquence. And the fact is that when you look at him - because most people - listen. Most people really have no idea about his playwriting at all, right? I mean, I was lucky enough because I was a playwright myself. Joe Papp introduced me to his work very, very early on in my own exile. And his work was, generally, very often about the absurd nature of language, language imposed from above, bureaucratic language. I mean, after all, he was a person who lived and was born in the same city as Franz Kafka, right, as Tom Stoppard.
So the idea of the absurd, the idea that life ceases to have any meaning if we do not try to break the cliches that surround us - now, this one would say it's exact the opposite of what a politician should do, because politicians, in fact, deals with cliches and slogans all the time with soundbites, with the saying things to - that the great majority of the people will agree with without even understanding what they're really saying.
So I think what was interesting about his life is that he - it was very ironic that he should become president. And when he became president, he, in fact, was constantly fighting with the politicians, because he felt that the politicians - a lot of the nouveau riche who would become rich after communism fell and became greedy and have sort of a neo-liberal position, like Vaclav Klaus, who had the same first name but not the second name, right?
DORFMAN: And so he would fight with his own prime minister constantly about that. And, I mean, I remember very well when, in 1984, General Pinochet came to, -you know, my nemesis came to Czechoslovakia, and Havel didn't want to meet him. He said: He's come here to buy arms. We don't want anything to do with him. Keep him away from me, you know? And the others said, no. We have to have realpolitick. You know, we're trying to sell arms where - and then Havel said, well, we shouldn't be selling arms anywhere. So, you know, this is not a typical politician, because he was not a typical playwright, either. And the truth is that he was an extraordinary man in all senses.
CONAN: Ariel Dorfman, we're talking about the late Vaclav Havel. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
And we have to remember in that a president of Czechoslovakia, later the Czech Republic, was pretty much a symbolic role, not an executive role. So I wonder, though: did you ever discuss your situations as writers, you and he, his in communist Czechoslovakia, yours after - in Pinochet's Chile?
DORFMAN: We had a bit of a conversation once when we had dinner with Elie Wiesel in Paris, because we were members of the Academy of Intellectuals, or Thinkers, in Paris. So we would meet once in a while. I was not a close friend of his, but I knew him relatively well. And I also, surely enough, was able to put him in a play of mine, because I have a play which is dedicated to many, many dissident writers and human rights activists. So it's strange to meet your own character, let's say. Right?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: I bet.
DORFMAN: In fact, it's something which comes - it would have come out of his own play, right. In his own plays, people meet themselves as characters in their own fiction. So it was like I was in one of his plays, meeting him. But we did talk a little bit about that and about the fact that he echoed something that I think about in memoir, which is that when I left Chile a couple of years after - in other words, it was two or three years after Pinochet had taken in power.
And I met with Heinrich Boll, who was a Nobel Prize of Literature. And he said something to me that Havel had also - was going to say to me many years later, which is: Watch out for language, because you have to make sure that today your rescue the language with which we'll build the future tomorrow. If you allow the people in power - of the right, of the left, of whatever political sign they, but repressive sign - if these people can repress your language, if they can make you live the lie and believe the lie, believe that you're perfectly moral living a lie, and they corrupt the language, then watch out.
So we talked a little bit about language in that sense, about how he had always - he - he started out - he didn't start out to become president of any republic or anything of the sort. He started out in order just to write freely. And, of course, he wasn't able to write freely in that regime, just like I wasn't able to write freely in my own regime, you know? So it was very much a talk about language and about how the moral stance is absolutely fundamental, essential. It's the core of any political activity. And, of course, that's not always so in politics.
CONAN: Is it in writing, though?
DORFMAN: Is it in writing? Yes. I think, you know - well, one should ask: Is it possible for somebody like Havel to become today - in other words, is it possible - if you look around the world, is it possible for somebody like Havel to become a president, somebody of that stature, and dedicated to the theater like he did? I think it becomes increasingly impossible. But the writing itself brought him to the fact. It happened all over the world, where people start out writing, and then they're not allowed to write the truth of what they're seeing. And they're repressed, or they're put in jail. And then as they become repressed, they become more and more dissident.
He himself didn't think that he was much of a dissident. He thought, you know, that he was just doing what had to be done. He kept on saying - there were two things. I can remember another thing that he said to me about humor, because I called attention to the fact that, very often, those of us who oppose authoritarianism or repressive regimes, we tend to be very rigid, you know, very formal, very serious. And he said: We much never forget that the humor is very important, because we must never forget we have to be able to laugh at our own selves. So he had that.
And that's, in fact, in the play that I wrote. That was one of the phrases that I wanted to put in there. I ended up taking it out, but it was something that I've been thinking about for a long time.
CONAN: Ariel, I'm afraid we have to end it there.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: But thank you so much for your time today. Appreciate it.
DORFMAN: Thank you so much, Neal.
CONAN: Ariel Dorfman joined us from his home in Durham, North Carolina. He's professor of literature at Duke, his memoir "Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile."
IRA FLATOW, HOST:
Tomorrow, we'll look at some of the people, products and ideas that had good years in 2011. I'm Neal Conan, TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.